Grief is one of the only things that all people share. No matter who we are, where we’re from, or what we believe in, at some point we all lose something or someone dear to us. Whatever the source of your grief may be, coping with the loss can be extremely hard. Luckily, there are things that you can do to ease the pain and help yourself heal.
Assumptive World Theory
Grief looks different in different people and can be triggered by different things. While many of us associate grief with death, it’s not the only cause. In addition to the loss of a loved one, people grieve following divorce, a harsh breakup, an injury, and more. In other words, people grieve over any major negative change that occurs in their lives and rattles their core beliefs. That, in short, is the assumptive world theory: we live life in a certain way, and when something big happens, it shuffles around our assumptions and disorients us, leaving a void that is often filled by panic and sadness.
There is no clear path to healing
The five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – are usually the one thing people know about grief. What you might now know is that contrary to common belief, the stages represent aspects of grief and not a chronological description of recovery. In order words, no therapist will ever say “congratulations on achieving acceptance, you’re almost there!” It is important to know that a person feeling depressed is not immune to anger. Likewise, you don’t “graduate” from bargaining in order to get to depression. The five stages merely help to articulate some of the feelings one might experience following loss:
Denial – “I cannot believe it’s over.” The first stage refers to that numbness and confusion that come with loss. It’s hard to fathom pain in that magnitude, and our brains take time processing it. In this stage, people might act as if nothing happened.
Anger – “Why did it have to happen?!” The second stage refers to frustration toward the situation, the people around us, the people in mourning themselves (for example, for saying/not saying something before their loved one passed), God, and even the deceased.
Bargaining – “What if… ?!” The third stage stems from a feeling of helplessness and the understanding that we can’t do anything to reverse what happened. It reflects the blame that comes with loss and the desire to regain some control in a chaotic time.
Depression – “I’m empty.” People who experience depression associated with grief experience common depression symptoms such as uncontrollable crying, fatigue, loss of appetite, elevated levels of anxiety, low energy trouble concentrating, and more.
Acceptance – “A light at the end of the tunnel.” After a while, mourners begin to come to terms with the loss, and feel like the pain is easing. Acceptance does not equal negligence. By accepting the new reality, we are not letting go of the past, but learning how to adapt to the future.
As mentioned before, pain comes in waves, and reaching acceptance doesn’t promise that the we have reached the end of the road. There is no clear path to healing, but there are certainly things to be done to improve the mourner’s condition.
Ways to deal with grief:
- Express your emotions: Talk, write, paint – find a way to let it out. Emotions are usually hard to conceptualize, and loss makes the task ever harder. That leaves us in a vulnerable and confusing place. Verbalizing helps us to better understand and process a situation. Talk to a friend, family, a support group, or a professional. Write about or to the person or thing you lost. Find your outlet.
- Keep people close: With the loss of someone, we often lose our core beliefs, making grieving a truly confusing period. It is important not to be alone as we advance through the healing process. That doesn’t mean we should surround ourselves at all times, but we should accept care and love from others.
- Take care of yourself: Negligence is a common symptom of grief, but it might create a downward spiral that will be hard to get out of. Introduce a routine with healthy habits. Shower regularly, get out of your PJ’s even when you don’t plan to leave home, and work out if you can (lightly). Get small things done, accumulate small achievements, and delegate whatever you can.
- Find ways to connect with what you lost: Some people fear that by overcoming grief, they might leave their lost loved one behind. People hold on to grief as a way to hold on to what they lost, using it as the connective tissue between the present and the past. Find ways to connect with the person you lost. Write them a letter, talk about them, and think of them when you are facing a tough decision: what advice would they give you right now?
- Give it time: Studies have found that grief has a psychological effect in the shape of heightened cortisol (aka stress hormone) levels. Meaning, in many ways, grieving is out of our control. Avoid setting unrealistic expectations about your healing process. Time does not heal, but it allows us the space to go through grieving, understand our emotions, and build our new reality.
When to ask for help
Some people in some contexts can go through the grieving process with only the support of their family and friends. Some people have completed a successful grieving process in the past but find themselves struggling in the face of another loss. It is absolutely natural to react differently to different types of loss. If you feel like your grieving process is lasting long and not improving, if you are particularly anxious or angry, if you struggle with participating in ordinary life events, if you have a hard time eating and sleeping, or if you experience a continuous sense of despair, it is possible you have major depression.
Even though some grief and depression symptoms overlap, there is a key difference to notice: whereas a person dealing with grief usually surrounds themselves with friends and relatives, a person who suffers from depression is more likely to avoid the crowd.
Grief counselling, a type of therapy, is definitely recommended. Therapy can provide an extra layer of support and help you make sense out of this senseless time. But in some cases, grief therapy might not be enough. If you are concerned that you or a friend is clinically depressed, the first step should be to reach out to a health professional for assessment. If depression is present, then other types of treatment including antidepressants should be discussed.
Every type of grief deserves to be validated, explored, and treated. If you feel like you need help coping with your loss, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Antidote’s board-certified doctors are here to guide you through your journey.